Curie, Marie (1867–1934)

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Curie, Marie (1867–1934)

Polish-born research scientist and discoverer of the element radium, the first woman to win a Nobel prize and the first person to win a second Nobel, who ranks with Albert Einstein in scientific influence and achievement during the 20th century. Name variations: Madame Curie; Marie Sklodowska or Sklodovska. Born Marya or Manya Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland, on November 7, 1867; died of leukemia on July 4, 1934, in Saint-Gervais, France; daughter of Wladyslaw Sklodowski (a high school physics teacher) and Bronislava or Bronislawa Sklodowska (director of a girls' school); educated at a Gymnasium in Warsaw and father's laboratory; began university study at the Sorbonne at age 24; married Pierre Curie (a physicist), on July 26, 1895, in Sceaux, France; children: Irène Joliot-Curie (1897–1956); Éve Curie (b. 1904).

Moved to Paris to attend the Sorbonne (1891); awarded First for master's examination for physics (1893); awarded Second for master's examination in mathematics (1894); began work on dissertation (1894); announced the possibility of a new radioactive element (1898); awarded Bertholet Medal of the French Academy of Sciences (1902); awarded Davy Medal of the Royal Society of London (1903); shared the Nobel Prize for physics with husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel (1903); received Elliott Cresson Medal of the Franklin Institute (1909); husband Pierre killed in traffic accident (1906); awarded second Nobel Prize, for chemistry, for isolation of metallic radium (1911); developed medical use of X-ray technology on the wounded of WWI (1914–18); visited the U.S. and met President Warren G. Harding (1921); made second trip to U.S. and was guest of President Herbert Hoover and Lou Henry Hoover (1929); was a member of 85 scientific societies throughout the world; was a member of the French Academy of Medicine; received 20 honorary degrees; served 12 years on the International Commission on Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations; enshrined in France's Pantheon (1995).

The idea of choosing between family life and the scientific career did not even cross Marie's mind. She was resolved to face love, maternity and science, all three, and to cheat none of them.

—Éve Curie

In 1902, Marie Sklodowska Curie and her husband Pierre returned one night to their darkened laboratory and discovered tiny glass containers glowing on the shelves. In the glimmering vials, the Curies instantly recognized the success of their long and arduous research, "the mysterious source of radiation … radium—their radium." For four years, the couple had been engaged in the exhausting labor of extracting and isolating their new discovery from huge quantities of clumsy pitchblende ore; while there had been times when Pierre had believed the struggle was not worth the time and effort, Marie had always refused to stop. That night, as aware as they were of their awesome achievement, neither could have realized its full ramifications.

Marya, or Manya, as she had been called in her native Poland, was born in Warsaw on November 7, 1867, the youngest of the five children of Wladyslaw Sklodowski and Bronislawa Sklodowska. Her father was a high school teacher of physics, her mother the director of a girls' school, and she had three sisters—Zosia, Bronislava, and Helena—and a brother Jozef. The family lived under the harsh conditions of Russian control. Once an independent nation, Poland had been carved into three parts under the rule of Germany, Austria, and Russia since the late 18th century, and in Warsaw the Russians made regular inspections of the schools to guarantee that the Polish language was not being taught. Because of the strict Russian edicts, Wladyslaw Sklodowski was harassed, then demoted. After his salary was reduced, the family had to move to poorer lodgings, where they took in boarders to make ends meet. But the parents of the curly-haired little girl valued academic achievement, and her fascination with the mineral specimens, electroscope, tubes, scales, and other instruments of her father's work-room were taken for granted.

In 1873, Marie's oldest sister Zosia died of typhus contracted from a boarder; two years later, her mother died of tuberculosis, but Marie remained an excellent student, following the success of her sister Bronya and her brother Jozef in winning a gold medal for academic achievement at the gymnasium, or secondary school. In the Russian Empire, however, women were not admitted to universities, and there was no hope of her attending university in Warsaw. Following her graduation, she spent a year with relatives in the country, a period of happy memories she would recall throughout her life. One vivid recollection was of a kulig, or all-night carnival and fancy dress ball, for which Marie disguised herself as a peasant and danced all night, followed by a wild sleigh ride home. At the end of the year, she returned to her father's house in Warsaw, planning to support herself by giving private lessons and to join the "floating university" where sympathetic teachers gave private instruction to gifted individuals. Marie and Bronya also became active in underground political movements bent on reform and freeing the Polish people from Russian rule.

Longing to go to Paris, where being a woman did not hinder attendance at the university,

Marie and her sister Bronya hit upon a plan. Marie would work as a governess to help pay for Bronya's studies to become a doctor, and, once Bronya had her degree, she would help to pay for Marie's turn at studies. Eventually Marie landed a good position with a family on a distant country estate in Szczuke, and became both teacher and friend to the family's eldest daughter, Bronka. The two taught illiterate children in the village, and Marie found time to continue her studies in physics and mathematics on her own. She also fell in love, but the romance ended when the parents of the young man opposed the marriage. For three years, Marie stayed on, earning the money to support Bronya's studies, until her sister was at last a doctor, and it was Marie's turn.

In November 1891, at age 24, Marie Sklodowska reached Paris and enrolled at the Faculty of Science at the Sorbonne. Finding great gaps in her knowledge of mathematics and physics, she was nevertheless stubborn, persistent, and obsessed with perfection. In 1893, she passed First in the master's examination in physics and, in 1894, passed Second in mathematics, a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that she was mastering the French language at the same time. Her work was so demanding that she had given up any thought of marriage, but in January 1894, a Polish professor, Joseph Kowalski, was in Paris on his honeymoon and introduced her to Pierre Curie, already recognized as a physicist of note at the youthful age of 35. Working in the School of Physics and Chemistry at the Sorbonne, Pierre was in the process of developing new equipment that would eventually be essential in all physics laboratories, as well as experimenting with problems of crystallography. He and his brother Jacques had discovered the phenomenon of piezoelectricity and had invented the piezoelectric quartz balance, an apparatus for making precise measurements of small quantities of electricity. The night they met, Marie Sklodowska and Pierre Curie became deeply involved in a discussion about quartz crystals, the first of many, and their ensuing courtship was carried out in true scientific style: Pierre's first gift to Marie was a copy of his pamphlet, "On Symmetry in Phenomena: Symmetry of an Electric Field and of a Magnetic Field." When he asked her to marry him, Marie declined, on the grounds that Poles should not abandon their country when it was struggling against Russian tyranny. In 1895, Pierre successfully defended his doctoral thesis and once more urged Marie to marry him. Finally she consented, and the wedding took place in the city hall of the Parisian suburb of Sceaux, on July 26, 1895.

The couple settled in a Paris apartment, and Marie found work in the laboratory of the Sorbonne's School of Physics, still determined to complete her doctorate. Two years later, she was pregnant when the couple set out on a long bicycle trip, which was cut short by the birth of their daughter Irène (Joliot-Curie) , delivered by Pierre's father, Dr. Eugène Curie. After the birth, Marie returned to work on her dissertation, deciding to further her study of the experiments previously done by Henri Becquerel on X-rays, which seemed to indicate a new type of radiation. To investigate the nature and origin of radiation, she chose to work with uranium, and the School of Physics offered a glassed-in storeroom on the ground floor where she could conduct her experiments.

Steaming in summer and freezing in winter, the room had many drawbacks as a laboratory, but Curie equipped it with the instruments designed by her husband for making precise electric measurements and set to work. The Curie electrometer, ionization chamber, and the piezoelectric quartz balance, all invented by Pierre and his brother, were critical to her success.

In follow-up to Becquerel, who had observed that uranium compounds cause air to conduct electricity, Curie measured the conductivity of air around other compounds and gradually became convinced that radiation was an atomic property. To test whether it occurred elsewhere, she examined every other known element, in compounds as well as the pure state, and discovered that compounds of thorium also emitted rays like those in uranium. This led to the more remarkable discovery that a mineral ore called pitchblende emitted more Becquerel radiation than the compounds of either uranium or thorium, and Curie began to suspect that the powerful radioactive substance might be an element hitherto unknown. On April 12, 1898, in a preliminary note to the Academy of Sciences, she made her scientifically stunning announcement about the possibility of a powerful new radioactive element, present in ordinary pitchblende. The Atomic Age was born.

At this point, Pierre entered into a formal collaboration with his wife. The couple speculated that radioactivity in pitchblende was probably caused by the presence of two new elements, one of which they called radium, and the other of which Marie named polonium after her homeland. Although the discovery drew considerable scientific attention, the couple knew that the existence of the two materials would not be proved until they obtained samples in pure form.

To extract even small amounts of the elements took huge quantities of crude ore. The Austrian government offered a ton of residue ore from the St. Joachimsthal mines in Bohemia if the Curies would pay the transportation costs. A ton of the material eventually arrived in enormous coarse sacks, and the backbreaking work began. For four years, while Pierre worked on identifying the properties of radium, his wife smelted the ore for study in its pure state. There were times when Pierre, believing they had invested too much time and effort, prodded Marie to give up the task, but she refused, continuing the work of purification and concentration. Finally, by 1902, Marie had obtained a decigram of the pure element, about enough to fill the tip of a teaspoon, and calculated its atomic weight to be 225. (Subsequently she isolated a few milligrams of polonium, a highly unstable element that would never prove to be as important as radium.)

In the couple's home, meanwhile, Pierre's father had become special teacher and friend to their daughter Irène. In 1900, since Pierre's salary did not support the family, Marie had also taken a job as a lecturer in physics at the Girls' Normal School in Sèvres, combining long hours in the laboratory with a long commute on a slow train, while still working on her doctoral dissertation. In June 1903, she passed her doctoral examination, with what might well be the most astounding scientific dissertation ever submitted, entitled "Researches on Radioactive Substances." In August of that year, the Curies' second child was born prematurely and died. Of these years of great difficulties and discovery, Marie later wrote, "We had no money, no laboratory, and no help. … And yet … the best and happiest years of our lives were spent, entirely consecrated to work."

In November 1903, the Curies were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics, and Marie Curie became the first woman to receive the honor. Thanks to the prize money, the family could finally live in some comfort, but the couple renounced all material profit from their discovery, believing it should be shared with the world. In October 1904, Pierre was appointed professor of physics at the Sorbonne, and a month later Marie was appointed superintendent of his laboratory; that December, she gave birth to their daughter Éve Curie . Of this period, Marie wrote she had found, "all I could have dreamed at the moment of our union and more." A mere two years later, in April 1906, tragedy struck

when Pierre was killed in a traffic accident, leaving Marie with two young children to support. Though devastated, Curie refused a pension from the Ministry of Public Education because she wanted to continue her research work. Appointed to fill Pierre's chair of physics, she became the first woman professor at the Sorbonne.

For several years, Curie continued her efforts to isolate the pure, uncombined element of metallic radium. In 1910, with the assistance of André Debierne, she succeeded, and the following year she became the first recipient of two Nobels, this time in chemistry. At the deeply conservative and all-male French Academy of Sciences, however, the honor of membership was withheld. Pierre had been elected to the institution a year before his death, but the submission of his wife's name resulted in months of bitter wrangling. Her admittance was denied, finally, by one vote. Ignoring the slight, Curie continued her work, and in 1914 the University of Paris and the Pasteur Institute jointly established the Radium Institute, with Marie Curie as director of the research division.

That year also saw the outbreak of World War I, causing Curie to turn her research to practical wartime use. Demonstrating how radiology could be used to locate shrapnel fragments in battlefield wounds, Curie oversaw the design and equipment of 20 radiological cars, nicknamed "Little Curies," which followed the troops, and 200 radiological rooms, fixed and mobile posts, where more than a million wounded men received X-rays in the course of the war. Devoted to the war effort, Curie made many visits to the battlefront to supervise medical use of radiology, often accompanied by her daughter, Irène. She also used the money from her second Nobel Prize to purchase war bonds and offered her medals to be melted down, but this sacrifice was refused by the Bank of France.

In 1918, at the end of World War I, Curie saw Poland reinstated as a nation, a moment she considered one of the high points in her life. Now called Madame Curie, she was at the height of her fame, known throughout the world. In 1921, she traveled with her daughters to the United States to receive a gram of radium to continue her research. While there, she attended a huge gathering of the American Association of University Women at Carnegie Hall in New York and received honorary degrees from many American institutions. In 1923, she wrote a biography of her husband Pierre, and in 1925 she fulfilled a longstanding dream when she traveled to Warsaw to lay the cornerstone for an institute for radium research in her homeland. In 1929, she returned to the United States to receive more funding and was a guest at the White House at the invitation of President Henry Hoover and First Lady Lou Henry Hoover .

Curie's daughters brought her great joy. Irène followed in her mother's footsteps, obtaining her Ph.D. with a thesis on polonium, and worked at the Radium Institute. She married an assistant in her mother's laboratory, Frédéric Joliot, and in 1935 the Joliot-Curies received a Nobel Prize. Her second daughter Éve became an internationally acclaimed journalist and wrote a biography of her mother, cited by the American Library Association as the best nonfiction book for 1937.

Ironically, the discovery that made Marie Curie famous also eroded her health and resulted in her death. At a time when no one realized the dangers of radioactivity, she was constantly and repeatedly exposed to materials in huge doses. Even now, her notebooks, desk, and laboratory equipment are highly radioactive and will be for hundreds of years to come. In later years, the exposure caused Madame Curie to suffer fatigue and increasing blindness due to cataracts, and her hands were pitted from handling the element. On July 4, 1934, with her daughters at her side, she succumbed to leukemia; she was buried at her husband's side.

Over 60 years later, in April 1995, the French government officially recognized the work of one of their most brilliant scientists. In one of his last acts, outgoing president François Mitterand announced that the ashes of Marie Curie and her husband Pierre would be carried in wood coffins from a small-town cemetery to the Pantheon, to be enshrined as the 70th and 71st immortals so honored there. Though one other woman, Sophie Bertholet , rests in the Pantheon alongside her husband, renowned chemist Marcellin Bertholet, Marie Curie was "the first lady in our history," noted Mitterand, "honored for her own merits." Throughout its history, the Pantheon has been known as the home of the nation's "great men."

Marie Curie's discovery of radium launched the Atomic Age, which has brought both good and evil. Today, no one could conceive of medicine without X-rays and many other techniques made possible by her work. But the destructive nature of radiation, which she also grew to understand, brought grave dangers to the human race. Her hope was always that humanity would choose the good and shun the evil—a choice humans are now continually forced to confront.


Curie, Éve. Madame Curie. NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1939.

Curie, Marie. Pierre Curie. NY: Macmillan, 1923.

Giroud, Françoise. Marie Curie: A Life. NY: Holmes and Meier, 1986.

Opfell, Olga S. The Lady Laureates: Women Who Have Won the Nobel Prize. 2nd ed. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1986.

Pflaum, Rosalynd. Grand Obsession: Marie Curie and Her World. NY: Doubleday, 1989.

Reid, Robert W. Marie Curie. NY: Collins, 1974.

Karin Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia